The Goalie Guild

Paving Semyon Varlamov’s Path

On July 1, the Colorado Avalanche traded a first and second round (conditional) pick to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Semyon Varlamov. Instead of getting the durable workhorse they so desperately needed in goal, Colorado instead elected to rescue and then sign the 23-year-old Russian goaltender to a three-year deal worth a total of $8.5 million.

Right away, the deal was not well-received. Many analysts, including myself, called it a real high risk with not enough reward.

Considering the numerous options Colorado had in the world of goalie free agency, and with more salary to spend than any other team at the time, I really struggled to comprehend this move. All they had to do was play it safe, sign a talented, experienced veteran that knows how to handle a heavy workload behind an inconsistent defense, and call it a day.

Photo Courtesy of Tom Turk – The Hockey Writers

But with options dwindling fast and no agreement transpiring with Tomas Vokoun, Colorado went completely against the grain in their strategy department. The result? They forked over a couple of draft picks for a young goalie that carries a reputation of being injury-prone.

Was this move a risk worth taking for the Avalanche? When you toss in draft picks, it becomes an endless debate, for it’s always a “wait and see” situation while those draft picks go from being figments of our imagination to tangible assets. And since nobody knows when or what will come of those two picks, evaluating the trade’s winner and loser is already a moot point. It’s simply unknown.

That being said, I want to help you understand what comes next for Varlamov and his new team – risk management. More importantly, I want to explain a few steps that both the Avalanche and Varlamov can take to make this contract situation less of a risk and more of a reward.

—-[ UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS INVOLVED ]—-

With every trade, there are many different degrees and areas of risk involved. But this specific trade, which includes a young goalie that has been oft-injured over the past two seasons, comes with a higher magnitude on the risky scale because he’s considered an “injury-prone” goaltender.

For a 23-year old, being injury prone is like the Scarlet Letter; it’s the absolute last thing you want to be known for. It damages your reputation around the league and it causes many people to hold their breath when you scramble, stretch or rely on raw reflexes to make a save. It’s a stark contrast from a more durable and calm goalie, as their body language can quickly instill more confidence in everyone around them (think Carey Price, Jaroslav Halak or Niklas Backstrom).

So even though it may be unfair, or more of a result of unfortunate situations, Varlamov carries with him the label every goalie tries to avoid.

But injuries aside, what makes Varlamov such an exquisite talent at his age is what I call Terminal Intensity. He’s constantly busting at the seams with energy and explosiveness. Every push from post-to-post looks like he’s being launched out of a cannon, yet he still has the sharp footwork to stop on a dime and set his feet for shots. He’s aggressive with his positioning and has a fierce focus in his eyes, yet still displays plenty of grace.

Because of this, he exerts a ton of energy over the course of many sequences within a game. Behind that youthful enthusiasm, however, it’s easy for Varlamov to make many highlight-reel saves and flashy, timely stops. It makes him a crowd-pleasing goalie, that’s for sure – one that relies on agility and athleticism to get a stick, a skate or a hand in the way of many shots.

That leads many scouts to use the term “raw-skilled” when describing how Varlamov’s reflexes make him an eye-pleasing goalie. But knowing that, along with the fact that he’s a real “high-energy” goalie, we see how he sometimes puts himself in awkward, contorted or uncomfortable positions in order to stop the puck. 

And that leads us right back to the terms “injury prone” and “risk management” for the Avalanche.

But before you automatically expect Varlamov to get hurt again this season, keep in mind that he never really had injury issues before his arrival in Washington. Maybe it was something in the water over there, or maybe it was just bad luck. Or maybe it was something related to technique or style. Nobody knows but him, and it appears it will stay that way.

Regardless of his past health issues, a goaltender’s mindset is always focused on the future. He made that verbally very clear when I attended his press conference back on Thursday, and he has made it clear in subsequent interviews, including this quality candid interview with Dmitry Chesnokov.

So what can both sides do to eliminate these “injury-prone” terms from Varlamov’s growing English dictionary? Below are some steps I hope to see the Avalanche take starting right now.

1. GET HIM A FULL-TIME GOALIE COACH: I’ve ranted, raved, and screamed to the heavens for years about how the Avalanche put themselves in an extremely risky situation by not employing a full-time goalie coach. In the past four years, they have used Jeff Hackett, Craig Billington, Jocelyn Thibault, and now plan on having Kirk McLean return for a second season. But none of them have worked with the team on a daily basis.

Varlamov has made it clear he looks forward to working with McLean, but will he get the amount of coaching he really needs? More importantly, will the Avalanche entertain the notion that Varlamov does want to bring over his mentor and long-time coach from Finland, Jussi Parkkila? These are crucial questions that the Avalanche need to answer as soon as possible.

This topic could be a full-blown article all by itself, but the simplest way to put it is this: Colorado’s lack of goalie development over the past five seasons is not good enough for a struggling NHL organization. It’s the most important position in hockey, yet the Avalanche focus on it less than any other position. Their system for development isn’t just weak, it’s virtually non-existent.

There are many examples of Avalanche goalie prospects, from Peter Budaj to Tyler Weiman, that have failed to take their game to the next level due to a lack of guidance, support, or opportunity.

Every goalie, no matter how talented or experienced they might be, needs steady support from a goalie coach. They aren’t just instructors, they are mentors, guides, and most importantly, friends. They help you through rough stretches, they give you proper praise when you succeed, and they are always looking out for your best interests. They push you to perform at your best and they act as verbal and visual feedback when it comes time to adjust or micro-manage your technique.

All of this being said, I seriously wonder about the Varlamov-McLean (on and off-ice) relationship. What about the language barrier? McLean probably doesn’t speak Russian. What happens when he tries to explain complicated pointers to Varlamov? What if Varlamov can’t easily comprehend exactly what McLean is saying? How much will this hinder or influence the learning process in practices?

Most importantly, how many days will McLean actually be with the team, whether it is for pre-game skates, video review sessions, travel days and road games? So many questions arise, and I see no answers, at least not right now. I don’t doubt that McLean is fully capable of mentoring or taking Varlamov’s game to the next level, but to be honest, he has never done it with an NHL goaltender before.

I personally feel that maybe the best course of action for McLean is to just leave Varlamov’s game alone. Instead of adjusting technique or tinkering with style, just let him do his thing. If Varlamov spends a few weeks with Parkkila between now and August 15 (Varly states this is when he comes back to start working with McLean), he should have a solid foundation to build upon as the season approaches.

Regardless of how much coaching McLean actually does, the fact remains that, without a full-time goalie coach on staff, the Avalanche will continue to put their goalies in a difficult spot. This is a risk they can no longer take, especially if they want Varlamov to reach his full potential in a burgundy and blue uniform.

Beyond Varlamov, the team has signed a very good prospect in Cedrick Desjardins and need to better cultivate Trevor Cann, Calvin Pickard and Kent Patterson. But without a goalie guide, they will surely lose out on crucial coaching when it really matters most.

I am not going to waste any more time discussing the importance of a full-time goalie coach for Varlamov. I think it’s rather obvious. But if you’d like me to go in-depth about the crucial necessity for one in Colorado, I am available to discuss this over the phone at any time. My office number is 303.660.0763 and I would gladly provide you with insight on why this is an absolute must for the Avalanche.

2. GET HIM A VISION & PILATES TRAINER: The future of training goaltenders is no longer just straight-up lessons on technique, or weight lifting workouts focused solely on muscle development. Goalie development in 2010 and beyond has now entered a new world of training the mind.

In this realm, there are two areas that rise to the surface – vision and mental toughness training. In a nutshell, a sound mind is necessary to have a sound body in the crease. In order to truly excel in all situations that can arise within a game, the goalie’s mind must be completely clear and focused so that it can make better decisions, and therefore more efficient movements.

It’s not how you stop the puck at the pro level, but why you choose to stop it in certain ways.

To have a clear mind that can process the wide spectrum of game situations, goalies must be able to comprehend and process the different speeds involved in a game. These include shot velocity, the speed at which plays develop, the speed at which an oncoming player approaches and the speed of more difficult situations like one-timers, backhanders and deflections.

The more a goalie’s mind is trained to process these speeds as they happen, the better decisions they will make. That’s where vision training, which is mainly done off the ice, comes into play. There are many examples of NHL goaltenders honing and improving their vision, most notably Dwayne Roloson.

If Varlamov can obtain a vision specialist and begin to train and hone his vision and puck-tracking skills, he’ll make better decisions in regards to certain save selections. Over time, his game will become more economical and ultimately make him less prone to certain kinds of injuries.

Next is a steady injection of Pilates training. This is the easiest and most beneficial step the Avalanche and Varlamov can take to manage risk.

If you aren’t familiar with Pilates, check out Pilates Aligned, which was rated the best studio in Colorado. What makes this method of training so crucial for goaltenders is overall muscle balance. As their website states, “Individuals can enhance their performance by maintaining proper skeletal alignment and muscular balance while increasing joint mobility, blood flow and body awareness.” 

This balance of muscles is one of the most important aspects to sound goaltending, especially at the pro levels. Furthermore, Pilates is one of the best ways an athlete can naturally prevent injuries. How? It improves your biomechanics.

“By improving postural alignment, freeing tight muscular patterns and creating deep strength, [Pilates Aligned] clients will build confidence and grace in their daily activities allowing for increased levels of performance with fewer injuries.”

There’s not much more to say than that. This type of natural, yet advanced training is exactly what Varlamov needs to make his body more durable. As a goalie that has been taking Pilates lessons for years, I can’t even begin to tell you how much it has helped me in the crease. Even when I take one 60-minute lesson a week, I clearly feel the advantages. Everything from my footwork to my agility is enhanced, I remain relaxed in pressure moments and both my breathing and on-ice awareness is improved. 

Overall, goaltenders that want to improve how they move and perform on the ice should be taking Pilates lessons. If you’re injury prone, Pilates is even more beneficial. So there’s no reason why the Avalanche can’t set Varlamov up with some lessons. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see Varly inside Pilates Aligned once or twice this season. 

3. MANAGING HIGH LEVELS OF ENERGY: Part of the maturation process a goaltender goes through is understanding how to manage levels of energy, mainly so that you have more when it’s really needed – late in games. The less energy you exert in the first half of a game, the more focused and alert you will be in the second half. This goes a long way in preparing you for the timely saves in a tied or one-goal contest, a situation the Avalanche have been in many, many times over the past few seasons. 

With a number of young goaltenders, understanding how to economize movements comes mainly through years of experience. Once you reach the NHL level, your main focus is based around showcasing your skills and stopping every puck with as much energy and focus as possible. Because of this, many rookies are strong in the first period, but tucker out before the game reaches the critical stage.

For Varlamov, the proof points towards this. In his 27 games played during the 2010-11 season, he allowed just 10 goals in the first period, but gave up 28 in the second and then 18 in the third period. Although this is a fairly arbitrary statistic, it still points to him coming out with high energy in the first period, but allows almost three times as many in the middle frame.

This is where a combination of coaching from McLean, plus mentorship from J-S Giguere could go a really long way for Varlamov. Both of them will help Varlamov to corral that energy and store it in parcels during the first half of a game, then use that saved energy in the second half. Again, it’s not something a young goalie learns overnight, but through steady guidance and seeing it first-hand when Giguere plays, he’ll be able to better emulate this (mainly mental) skill of energy management.

4. DISPLAYING TRUST IN HIS DEFENSEMEN: Many analysts will talk about how a goalie needs to play well enough to instill confidence in his teammates. But this dynamic works both ways. Defensemen must also play well enough in order to instill confidence in their goaltender.

If a goaltender feels pressure to absorb every single puck that comes his way, issues can arise. Not only does the atmospheric pressure rise as situations develop over the course of a game, but the goaltender can become frustrated by a lack of support around the crease area.

When the goaltender begins to develop a mindset that they have to do it all, they often over-exert themselves. This situation arose with Craig Anderson last season. He was so visibly frustrated with the lack of support in front of him that he would try to make saves in ways that he wouldn’t normally have to. That over-exertion may have played a role in the injuries he suffered, which caused even more frustration as the season continued.

And the proof of his frustrations in Colorado last season were made quite clear when he was traded to Ottawa and went right back to playing his game, and playing it extremely well.

For Varlamov, if he can communicate and build quality relationships with his defensemen both on and off the ice, it will go a long way to creating a strong sense of team chemistry in the defensive zone. If he can be “bailed out” by his defensemen a few times each night, he’ll begin to trust in this support and that will limit the number of times he has to dive around or scramble in order to cover pucks.

And the less we see Varlamov diving around, the more likely we are to see him remain healthy for the entire season.

 —-[ CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ]—-

In conclusion, the Avalanche have taken on a fairly significant risk by trading two draft picks and then signing Varlamov to a three-year deal. The main aspect of this risk is the fact that Varlamov, for different reasons, is considered an injury-prone goalie. But by taking a few simple steps to improve his on and off-ice training, that risk can evaporate rather quickly.

Thoughts on Varlamov”s press conference (mp3)

I’ll leave you with an Audio Recap I recorded right after leaving Varlamov’s press conference last Thursday. Take a listen and please feel free to leave comments or connect with me on Twitter if you would like to discuss any of the topics mentioned in this evaluation of Varlamov’s upcoming season in an Avalanche uniform.

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